Creating Positive Memories
The story of Dairy Queen began when they opened their first store in Joliet, Illinois in 1940. Today they are part of the landscape in the US with an ever-increasing presence around the world. Here, RLI spends some time with Chris Wren, Vice President, International Development to discuss the growth of the brand and its portfolio inside and outside of America.
Initially the Dairy Queen concept was a traditional “ice cream stand” that featured novelties such as shakes and banana splits. Over the years the menu has expanded to include proprietary confections like the Blizzard Treat, Dilly Bars and Peanut Buster Parfaits along with burgers, fries, onion rings and chicken strips.
The company’s presence has grown ever since its inception 83 years ago and in 1998 the business was acquired by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, setting them on the path to major expansion in its home market and abroad.
Today they operate over 7,000 units, with more than 5,000 of these across the US and Canada along with more than 1,400 units in China, over 500 in Thailand, over 300 in Mexico and business operations throughout Asia, Latin America, parts of the Middle East and the Caribbean.
Discussing some recent store openings, Chris Wren, Vice President, International Development at Dairy Queen highlights that while it is difficult to limit it to one or two, they have had a couple of openings in China in the Chengdu Fashion District and Shenzhen Baoan Airport that were pretty spectacular.
“While some of the most interesting restaurant design innovation in the world is in China right now, our other markets are also pushing the envelope. In Mexico, for example, we just opened our 300th unit earlier this year and they continue to produce innovative designs like Parque Tepeyac where the unit is suspended near the movie theatres. Design innovation is a passion among the whole international team and among our franchisees also.”
The company’s most successful market outside of the US is China and they launched there back in 1992, making them one of the first western brands to make the move. Chris explains that they have a number of great franchisees there who continue to expand aggressively and push the envelope from a design and menu perspective. He goes on to say that having spent a lot of time at other brands trying to find partners in China he was very grateful that the company has such excellent franchisees in China and elsewhere, which are so committed to the brand.
Earlier this year it was announced that International Dairy Queen, a subsidiary of Dairy Queen and CFB Group, through its wholly owned subsidiary Shanghai Shida Catering Management, a franchise ownership company based in Shanghai, has announced plans to open 180 food-centric restaurants in China by 2034. China is the fastest growing market for International Dairy Queen and is among the top three in size, alongside the US and Canada.
The last 12 months may have been the best in the company’s history in terms of international development, which gives them excellent momentum heading into 2024. With the upcoming pipeline already looking strong, this will allow them the opportunity to focus on new market entries.
“We still have a lot of room to grow in Asia, in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East, the UK and Europe and Latin America. With more than 2,500 international units and a very experienced international team we have both a core to build on and the capacity to execute, along with in-market resources,” Wren comments.
Ensuring they maintain their strong customer base, the business works with multiple promotions to stay current and contemporary with its guests. In the US, they are heavily involved with Major League Baseball while across Asia they collaborate with properties like Detective Conan and Weirdo Ghost Gang.
“The size of our business and the skill of our marketers give us a lot of reach and flex. I’m not a marketer but I’m constantly surprised at the innovation of our marketing teams.”
Moving onto the topic of social media and how the business utilises this, Dairy Queen actively monitors the latest trends on TikTok and other social platforms and leans into these in real time when possible. Fans who engage with the company on these platforms can then find secret menu items or hacks at their stores to complete the experience. In addition, they conduct a lot of experiments on these platforms to see what works for the brand and its fans.
As talk turns to differentiators between their business and others, Wren mentions that he is always very interested in what makes a concept special. In the case of Dairy Queen, the core of their business is a highly proprietary and differentiated soft serve ice cream offer that is unmatched and very difficult to replicate. They also have branded properties like the Blizzard Treat and the Dilly Bar that are iconic and they make fabulous ice cream cakes that again cannot be replicated simply.
The mission statement of the company can be paraphrased as “to create positive memories for all who touch Dairy Queen”. The business has a legacy of 80 years of happy moments for their fans around the world, for many of their customers that grew up eating their products and who took their kids and grandkids to their restaurants. It is a brand that people get emotional about and Wren highlights how fantastic it is to be a part of this.
“As we look to the future, I think for national and international development, the big challenge is to be thoughtful in our expansion bets; there are only so many market entries you can support at one time. I think we also need to make sure we continue to partner with franchisees where there is a shared vision and commercial compatibility. We are in the fortunate position of not having to hit development numbers at any cost. We want to build businesses together that will last forever,” Wren concludes.